Although there is an intimate and tragic love story at its heart, Aida is set against the exotic background of the Egypt of the Pharaohs, and is full of patriotic, nationalistic sentiments, as the Egyptian army prepare to go to war to fight off a revolt by the Ethiopians. It's a perfect subject, in other words, for Verdi, and it was undoubtedly the nature of the storyline, much more than any commission for the new opera house in Cairo (which he repeatedly refused) or the grand occasion of the opening of the Suez Canal, that encouraged him to return to opera composition in 1871, and he would return in style with a magnificent work.
Considering its origins and its setting - whether it was composed for a grand occasion or not - Verdi's Aida is appropriately stately in its expressions of nationalistic pride and identity, with extravagant marches, battle hymns, ceremonial processions and dances. There's no point in doing Aida in a minimalist style, as Robert Wilson has done in the past (although it's certainly interesting to see something different attempted) - this is an opera that just calls out for a grand scale production. If you haven't got a stage the size of the Arena di Verona, and a director like Franco Zeffirelli to fill it, the nearest grand, traditionally staged Aida you are going to find is this Sonja Frisell production - now over twenty years old - for the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
It's a big production in every respect - and yes, I include the size of the singers in this - with towering temples, the stage filled with chorus, troops, dancers and well-tanned, bare-chested slaves, even horses and chariots, all arranged in grand ceremonial processions and formations. It's unfortunately a little too static - an impressive spectacle even if it is a little bit kitsch, but not much thought has been put into the interaction between the main players. They just walk on in most cases, sing their part, and walk back off again. But, this is what you expect of an Aida production - particularly a traditional one at the Met - and really, you'd feel somewhat short-changed if it didn't have all the other bells and whistles (and trumpets).
You won't feel short-changed by the singers here either. Johan Botha is one of the finest tenors in the world, a great Wagnerian heldentenor, which serves him in good stead for this particular Verdi opera. I don't know about his acting ability - there's not much required here of Ramadès - but he has an ability to fill his roles with life, principally through the wonderful warmth of tone of his voice. Violeta Urmana is the Verdian soprano of choice at the moment, and she is fine singing the role of Aida, if again there are not any real acting demands placed on her. Dolora Zajick is an experienced Amneris and sings the role well, but does unfortunately look constipated when singing (sorry, but she does). The final duet notwithstanding, Act IV of Aida belongs to Amneris however, Verdi giving her character real depth and human passion, and Dolora Zajick launches into it with relish, making perhaps the strongest impression on the whole production, which is a little lacking in energy elsewhere.
Recorded live for worldwide broadcast in 2009 for the Met's Live in HD programme, the production looks fantastic in High Definition, is colourful and well-lit. The audio mixes are in PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 and, allowing for one or two minor sound issues with the live mix which is a little bit echoing in places, they both sound fine, the surround in particular dispersing the choral singing well. Extras on the BD include edited-down interviews (I'd have been happy to listen to much more of this) conducted by Renée Fleming with the cast and extras.